As Rep. Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican, counted votes this week in his bid to become House majority whip, the conflicting perceptions of his own lobbyist ties suggested the depth of the challenge facing Republicans in the mushrooming Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
The leadership bid by Cantor, the sole Jewish Republican in the House, is part of a broader GOP leadership scramble touched off last weekend when Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, an Abramoff ally, announced that he was resigning as House majority leader amid legal troubles of his own. Cantor, currently deputy whip, is being hailed by Republicans as part of a crop of reformers who can help the GOP overcome the Abramoff scandal.
Cantor announced this week that he had lined up 146 votes for his whip bid, more than the 116 needed to win.
But Democrats and some campaign finance watchdogs countered that Cantor had his own links to Abramoff, complicating efforts to portray him as part of a reform trend.
“As Republicans try to figure out a way to dig out from this, there are questions in the GOP leadership about how to look for people from a different culture than in the past,” said Larry Noble, executive director of a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group, the Center for Responsive Politics. “I’m not sure that Eric Cantor is from a different culture.”
Among Cantor’s ties to Abramoff was a 2003 fund-raiser at an Abramoff-owned kosher deli, whose catering costs were initially unreported in Cantor’s campaign finance filings.
“There are members who did not have an Abramoff fund-raiser,” Noble said. “Lots of members had contributions from tribes connected with Abramoff but not from Abramoff. Cantor had $13,000 in contributions from Abramoff or his wife from 2000 through 2004. Any member who has had a direct connection with Abramoff is going to have to explain that.”
The deli affair, first reported in the Forward, was said by some Washington insiders this week to be the first public account of Abramoff’s congressional misadventures.
Abramoff pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington January 3 to three felony counts of mail-fraud conspiracy and tax evasion after a two-and-a-half-year investigation of his lobbying for Indian gaming interests. As part of his plea deal, he agreed to cooperate with investigators looking into allegations of bribery in the scandal, which threatened to implicate dozens of lawmakers and their aides.
On the day he pleaded, a raft of Republican elected officials, including President Bush, declared that they were shedding Abramoff’s money. Cantor announced that he would give $10,000 in campaign contributions he had collected from Abramoff to a charity in his hometown of Richmond, Va.
Among those apparently threatened is DeLay, who went on several Abramoff-paid trips abroad and maintained other connections to the lobbyist. DeLay has denied any wrongdoing in connection to Abramoff.
DeLay stepped aside temporarily as House majority leader in September 2005, after he was indicted in Texas for alleged money laundering in the 2002 statehouse elections. DeLay had hoped to return as majority leader if he was cleared, but renounced the ambition as Republican woes mounted and Texas courts rejected his efforts to have his charges dismissed. “The job of majority leader and the mandate of the Republican majority are too important to be hamstrung, even for a few months, by personal distractions,” DeLay wrote in a January 7 letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
After DeLay’s resignation, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the acting majority leader and Cantor’s chief patron, immediately declared that he was seeking the post. Cantor announced in turn that he would seek to move up to whip. He said Monday that he had amassed 140 votes for his whip bid, more than the 116 he would need for victory.
Some top conservative luminaries were touting Cantor as an agent for change in the House, whatever his ties to Abramoff.
“A party led by young talents like Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Mike Pence and Mark Kirk would be taken seriously as a party of reform,” neoconservative columnist David Brooks wrote January 5 in The New York Times. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich also hailed Cantor as a fresh face who could save GOP lawmakers from being branded the party of corruption.
Cantor’s aides sought to portray Abramoff as a one-time enemy of Cantor’s.
“Congressman Cantor is the only candidate for leadership that Jack Abramoff and his gaming clients spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to beat,” Cantor’s press secretary, Geoff Embler, said in an e-mail message. Pointing to a November 2005 Washington Post report, Embler noted that Abramoff had used a so-called 527 committee, the Faith and Family Alliance, to run phone banks and send mailings attacking Cantor during a Republican primary when Cantor first ran for Congress in 2000.
After Cantor won the election, however, Abramoff evidently reversed course. Cantor’s star was rising; in 2002 he was tapped to be chief deputy majority whip, fourth in the House Republican hierarchy.
In January 2003, the Forward reported, a downtown Washington kosher deli then owned by Abramoff, Stacks, feted Cantor with a $500-a-plate “sandwich-naming” fund-raising party attended by a raft of lawmakers and their aides, activists and lobbyists. The “Eric Cantor” sandwich was originally supposed to feature tuna, but Cantor asked that it be changed to the more red-meat combo of roast beef on challah.
At the party, Abramoff built up Cantor, telling the Forward that the Virginia lawmaker would become “the party’s most visible liaison to Jewish groups and in my view will be an important liaison to conservatives and religious Christians.” He described Cantor as having “real Jewish credentials,” but called him someone who “does not use his observance as a political weapon. Jews appreciate that, as do non-Jews.”
In June 2003, the Forward disclosed that Cantor had neither paid for nor listed as a debt in his campaign finance filings the cost of the catering at the Stacks fund-raiser. Experts said that the failure to report the debt likely violated campaign finance laws. After the Forward reported the lapse, Cantor’s campaign obtained an invoice and quickly paid $1,732 for the event.
The Washington Post and other newspapers subsequently disclosed that another Abramoff eatery, an upscale, non-kosher expense-account mecca named Signatures, had failed to bill several lawmakers for parties they had held there, creating possible legal liabilities for the lawmakers.
Cantor’s Abramoff link arose again in May 2005, when the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the Virginia lawmaker had signed a June 2003 letter engineered by Abramoff. The letter urged the Interior Department to reject the bid of the Jena band of Choctaw Indians of Louisiana to establish a casino. The proposed casino would have competed with one run by an Abramoff tribal client, the Louisiana Coushatta. Up to that point, Cantor had shown little interest in casino gambling, especially in Louisiana. Quizzed by the Times-Dispatch, he said that in signing the letter he was being mindful of concerns for his own state. He also denied any link between the letter and funds raised for him by Abramoff.
“I have never really had anything to do with Jack Abramoff, other than I knew him on a very casual, but infrequent basis,” Cantor told the Times-Dispatch, adding, “I never even knew he was in any way involved with that letter, whatsoever.”
Democrats, for their part, seized on the Abramoff-Cantor connections. “If you’re looking for a ‘clean Gene,’ this ain’t the guy,” said the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman.
Republicans predicted that whatever ties the lobbyist and the congressman had would not hurt Cantor. “I don’t believe the Abramoff thing will adversely impact Eric’s chance to be majority whip, nor should it,” a senior Republican strategist said. “When confronted with Abramoff’s shenanigans at the kosher restaurant, Cantor immediately moved to rectify the situation. Eric was far removed from Jack Abramoff’s actions.”